lithic_rune: (Living legacy)
[personal profile] lithic_rune
Title: Slipstream
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Rating: PG13
Summary: A world where Zack survived. Memories that say he didn't. Zack has no idea who or what he can trust when a slipstream becomes a riptide.

Chapter One
Next Chapter

Chapter Two


-Cloud.-

Everything...

"Cloud."

Everything hurt. His back, his head, maybe even his hair.

"Cloud, are you listening?"

Cloud? Who was talking? Why were they talking to Cloud?

"You know, Barret came by earlier. I think he just wanted to catch up. He didn't say it like that, though. You know how he is."

Yeah, that... didn't sound like something Barret would ever say. Ever.

Why would Barret want to catch up with him?

"You should give him a call, Cloud."

I'm not Cloud. Things were a little bit fuzzy, but he was sure about that.

Why couldn't he open his eyes?

Oh. Right. Because trying seemed to drive spikes of pain through his skull. Sitting here and just listening for a minute sounded like a good idea to him. A really good idea. He'd try again. In a minute.

Footsteps. He could hear footsteps as someone walked across something that might have been old wooden boards. It almost felt nostalgic, that soft tread of feet. Not quite the right pace, but just for a moment, those footsteps could have been Aerith's as she crossed the old floor in her church. That wasn't Aerith's voice, though.

Who...?

It smelled like Aerith's church, too. Flowers and clean dirt banishing Midgar's grittiness, along with a hint of something that was just plain her. It made him smile.

Ow. Smiling hurt.

"Come on. At least come over to the bar. You got something delivered today."

It wasn't Aerith, but he was still pretty sure he knew that voice. He tried again to crack his eyes open, gritting his teeth against the pain. This time he succeeded, though everything was blurry. He blinked, trying to clear the fog of pain away.

"You can't tell me you're not looking forward to it." Light and teasing. Softly cajoling. Familiar. So familiar. He finally focused his eyes on her face. She looked like...

Kunsel?

"Zack! Snap out of it!"

---


Zack hissed in pain as someone helped him sit up, vision doubling as he tried to focus on his surroundings. Aerith's church swam before his eyes, then metal walls blackened with soot. Lights flickered - sunlight, strobing red, sun again - then settled briefly into a cool and soothing green that washed all the pain away. Zack breathed out in relief, letting his eyes close as the Cure spell took effect. When he opened them again, all that remained was the battered ShinRa hall and a man dressed in the uniform of a SOLDIER Second Class. His face was half-obscured by a standard issue helmet.

Zack's jaw went slack, his eyes widening. That face. No way.

"Kunsel?" he breathed.

The SOLDIER's face cracked a smile. "The one and only."

For the second time in... in however much time had passed since the blast, Zack felt like the breath had been knocked right out of his lungs. "What are you doing here?" Of all the people he'd thought he might run into on this mission, Kunsel was one of the last. SOLDIERS just didn't get assigned to something like reactor guard duty.

"I could ask you the same thing," Kunsel said pointedly. "In fact, I could ask you a lot of things."

Zack winced. He had a feeling he knew exactly what Kunsel meant. From Kunsel's perspective, Zack had been missing for five years without a single call or PHS text, only the company's declaration that he was dead. How could he explain, though? How much did Kunsel know? He usually knew something, often more than he should, but this... This wasn't something Kunsel could possibly have dug up. Not with enough detail to explain.

Before he could even begin to figure out where to start, though, Kunsel cut him off with a shake of his head.

"Later. We don't have time. Come on, Zack." With one arm already hooked around Zack, Kunsel hauled him to his feet. His smile had faded to something much more grave. "I was monitoring the surveillance in this place when I was looking into something else. I got lucky and spotted you in the process. That's how I knew where you were. I may not have been the only one who was watching that feed, though, and I'm definitely not the only one responding to the explosion. We've got to get you out of here, now."

The explosion. The reactor. AVALANCHE. Damn, if he'd been caught in the blast, what about the others? Zack twisted as he steadied himself, ignoring the lingering aches that the Cure spell hadn't quite been able to erase. A few guttering fires clung to what little there was to burn, but truth was, there wasn't much. ShinRa hadn't even bothered with carpet on the floor. No bodies, though. No mysterious smoldering lumps. Just a twisted door blown off its hinges - probably what had hit him from behind. In retrospect, it might have also saved his life. He couldn't think of anything else that might have shielded him from the heat of the blast.

The lack of bodies was vaguely reassuring, except he still didn't know they were safe. When Kunsel pulled him by the shoulder, trying to get him to move, Zack hesitated, then planted his feet.

He had to know.

"Kunsel, was there anyone else when you got here?"

Kunsel turned his head, looking at Zack, then down the corridor. He shook his head. "No. It was just you. Your friends already made it out." There was something in his voice when he said the word 'friends', almost questioning, but Zack only offered a shrug. He wasn't really sure where he stood with most of AVALANCHE. They had parallel goals, at least for the moment. That was about all that could be said with confidence. Even things with Tifa were confusing, and he'd known her longer than the rest.

Still, he was glad that they weren't here. He couldn't even fault them for leaving him behind. He could picture what must have happened, the narrow escape, the flames blasting through the doors behind them. They'd very likely assumed he was dead. Anyone else probably would have been. Lucky for him, he was SOLDIER. SOLDIERs were harder to kill than that.

Though probably just as lucky, he'd been found by a friend - a friend with a Restore materia at hand.

Reassured that they weren't leaving anyone else, the two of them made their way out of the reactor. Zack noted that they took the same path that AVALANCHE had planned, but when they finally made it through the last smoldering door, there wasn't anyone waiting. Again, he wasn't surprised. Nobody in their right mind stuck around when they'd just blown a reactor up. No doubt they were already on their way to the bar that AVALANCHE used as its headquarters.

Come on. At least come over to the bar. You got something delivered today.

Unbidden, a flicker of that strange dream surfaced. Zack frowned, then pushed it away. Keep it together, Zack, he told himself. You got hit and nearly fried to a crisp. That was bound to give a guy strange dreams.

"So, where are we heading?" Kunsel asked, voice low. He turned his head, scanning the street. "You got somewhere safe that you can lie low?" Somewhere safe that they could talk, it went without saying.

Actually, that was a good question. Zack hesitated, then shook his friend's supporting arm off. He didn't need it anymore, and anyone watching might find it suspicious if they thought they saw a wounded man being led away from the site of a terrorist attack.

Kunsel was either thinking along the same lines, or he was quick to pick up on Zack's concerns. Without bothering to ask, he pulled his helmet off and handed it over to his friend. "Here. Put that on. There's not that many Firsts left since... well, since everything, but there's still enough of them that if you cover your face and stick with me most people won't think twice."

"Thanks, man." Zack accepted the helmet gratefully and tugged it on. He'd never really cared for that part of the ShinRa uniform, preferring to be able to see over the protection it gave, but in this case it was better to keep from being identified. "To answer your question, yeah, I do, but it's not somewhere I think I can take you." He doubted AVALANCHE would take it well if he brought another SOLDIER back with him - one who hadn't abandoned ShinRa.

Kunsel pursed his lips as he considered that for a moment, absentmindedly running a hand through his short brown hair. Zack could practically see him running through a list of options in his head. "Nowhere in the slums," he voiced his thoughts out loud. "Two SOLDIERs would stick out and draw attention. I'd say your friend Aerith's house, but..."

Zack grimaced. He knew. Dammit, he knew too well. "Yeah. The Turks." Tseng had admitted that they were watching her, and at the time that had been reassuring, to know that someone was looking out for his girlfriend when he wasn't there, but now it made it almost impossible even to see her again. It had been difficult just to slip her a letter. Frustration bubbled up inside of him. Eighty-nine letters, and I've only written seven. Aerith... I'll make it up to you, I swear.

At least she knew he was alive. That was something.

Booted feet pounded in the streets as two soldiers ran by, guns out and clearly ready for trouble. Both Zack and Kunsel clamped their mouths shut, and Zack made a point to keep his strides easy, just two SOLDIERs going about their business. Tension remained thick until the two men passed them by. Even then he barely let out a breath. Kunsel did a better job of acting nonchalant, even turned his head as would any half-curious passerby.

"You know," he commented, an odd note in his voice, "my PHS hasn't gone off at all."

Behind his helment, Zack's eyesbrows rose. "A ShinRa reactor blows up and they're not calling all available personnel?" He might have been out of the loop for five years, but there was something wrong with that.

"It's not just that either." Fixing his gaze forward, Kunsel lowered his voice. "I told you I was looking into something else going on. Zack, did you run into any resistance in there?"

A question like that, on the heels of what had just happened, sent something crawling down Zack's spine. He'd noticed the lack of guards, the lack of security of almost any kind. The fact that Kunsel was asking meant that it wasn't just chance.

Which meant that it was planned - and not by AVALANCHE. No matter how good their intel was or how talented their hackers were, there was just no way they could have cleared a whole reactor of guards and technicians without anyone in ShinRa noticing.

"One drone," he said, feeling cold. "A nasty one, but just one. Guard Scorpion. Kunsel, what-"

Kunsel shook his head, cutting him off. "Not here. We need to go-" He stopped. There it was again, the problem of where they could go where neither of them would be noticed. As they rounded a corner, he seemed to mull the problem over. Zack left him to it, trying to think of a solution of his own. Somewhere without AVALANCHE. Somewhere without Turks or ShinRa surveillance. Somewhere no one would blink an eye at two SOLDIERs...

"Hey."

Zack glanced over to find Kunsel slanting a look at him. Mako-blue eyes flicked up and down, taking his measure, before his mouth tugged up in a grin. "Zack, how'd you like to go on a mission?"

Zack blinked. Blinked again as it sank in. Then, slowly, a matching grin spread across his face. "Sure. Why not?"

Hell, who cared that he didn't work for ShinRa anymore? A mission would be perfect for this.

---


It wasn't a glorious mission. It wasn't even all that interesting. Simple monster extermination in a construction zone below the Midgar plate. There'd been a tense moment when he and Kunsel had boarded the train and Zack had handed over his fake ID, realizing too late that it declared him a mercenary, not an actual ShinRa employee. The scanner didn't flag it, though, and the attendant who waved them through was apparently too starstruck at the presence of both a First and Second Class SOLDIER in her car that she didn't bother to check for inconsistencies.

Thank goodness for small blessings. Smiling wryly at the memory, Zack prowled through the cement pillars and steel I-beams that rose around him like the bones of a great beast. Not that far from him, Kunsel did the same. By unspoken agreement they'd each picked a side of the narrow street that wove through the unfinished buildings. Just because they were using this mission as a cover for privacy didn't mean they weren't taking the mission seriously. SOLDIERs didn't do that, and he was, no matter what, still SOLDIER to his bones.

"I knew you weren't dead, of course," Kunsel finally spoke up, once he must have deemed that they'd gone far enough. His broadsword flashed, slicing easily through a Hedgehog Pie that had wandered into the construction site. Not the target of the mission, but still a nuisance that the construction workers would be glad enough to be rid of. "At least, I was pretty certain. ShinRa never shut your PHS account off, even if you never answered it."

Guilt twinged at the reminder, and Zack's free hand found his neck in a habit he'd never been able to break. "Yeah, about that..."

Kunsel smiled easily, shaking his head. "Nah, I get it. You were on the run. You couldn't answer without giving yourself away." His lips compressed, but other than that, his face gave nothing away as to what was going through his head. He was good at that, when he wanted to be. Sometimes it made Zack wonder if his friend had ever considered being a Turk. That, and Kunsel's penchant for collecting information...

But Zack never asked, not particularly keen on the idea, and Kunsel seemed perfectly happy with what he'd chosen to be. That was enough for him. For both of them.

"So, what happened?" the SOLDIER Second cut into his thoughts, casting a prodding look his way. "You disappeared at Nibelheim, Sephiroth died, then four years of nothing until I caught that report about escaped research samples." He made a sound in the back of his throat that Zack couldn't tell whether it was incredulous or angry. That grim, calculating line was back on his face. "And yet, even when those research samples wiped a whole battalion out, ShinRa never, never sent a SOLDIER to deal with them. I know. I looked. They never even posted a mission. You'd think there was something they didn't want us to find out."

Because there was. So many things. Zack blew out a breath. Man, where do I even start?

"Sephiroth didn't just die," he finally said, eyes somberly still scanning the terrain. Unfortunately, there was no sign of any monsters, and there were no answers in the glassless windows. Just empty concrete walls. "Man, I don't even know how to explain it, Kunsel. We found things in the reactor. Sephiroth said they were Professor Hojo's experiments, but they looked like monsters to me." He snorted. "Not that that should surprise me. We found something called Jenova, too, which Sephiroth said was his mother. How the hell does that even work?" He cut himself off. "Rhetorical question. Don't answer that."

Some things you just didn't want to know.

Kunsel hummed in thought, carefully stepping over a fallen I-beam. Sloppy construction habits, leaving that just lying around in the street, but common enough that it probably wasn't connected to the monster they were hunting. "I take it something happened."

Zack grimaced at the understatement. "A lot. Gensis showed up and they talked." He shook his head. "It wasn't a good conversation. Angeal, Gensis, Sephiroth... They were all part of some kind of human experiment - one that went wrong."

"The Generals?" Kunsel questioned sharply.

Zack let out a humorless laugh. "I don't think ShinRa cares how high up in the food chain we are, Kunsel. If we suit their purpose, they'll use us."

"Damn," Kunsel swore. "No wonder..." Abruptly his focus sharpened on Zack, as though suddenly putting pieces together. "Four years," he said. "You were gone four years without a word."

The corners of Zack's eyes tightened, and he knew if he looked down at his hand, wrapped around the Buster sword's hilt, he'd see his fingers clenching the grip. "Yeah," he said, voice quiet. "Sephiroth was dead. I was there. I think Hojo decided I'd make a good replacement. Me and Cloud." He couldn't keep the pain from his voice. Cloud. I'm sorry.

Kunsel's jaw clenched, tension visible in every movement now. Somehow, though, he still kept his voice even. "Cloud?" he asked. Of course he'd pick up on that.

"One of the troopers assigned to the mission with us," Zack clarified. He easily hopped a half-finished curb, turning onto a street that was still being planned. The packed, unpaved ground would hopefully show better tracks. "He hadn't made it into SOLDIER yet, though he wanted to. I think he could have done it. He even took on Sephiroth, after Sephiroth went nuts and burned the town."

Kunsel winced, clearly envisioning how that went. "A trooper versus Sephiroth? How badly did he get creamed?" Then he frowned. "Wait, Sephiroth did what? You're kidding!"

For a moment, it was all Zack could do not to crack up, and not in the good, funny way. Kunsel didn't know. He had no idea. No matter how much more he knew than he was supposed to, he couldn't even begin to guess what had really happened that day. And who could blame him? The Silver General, the Hero of Wutai, the man every SOLDIER wanted to be, losing his sanity, destroying everything? A half-trained sixteen year old boy succeeding where a SOLDIER First Class had failed? If Zack hadn't lived it, he wouldn't believe it himself!

"Zack?"

There was worry in Kunsel's voice. The other SOLDIER had stopped and turned to face him fully, and it was only then that Zack realized that he'd stopped, too. The mission, not forgotten, had to wait for a moment while he pulled in an unsteady breath. He forced himself to release it slowly. Breathing techniques. Angeal would have approved.

"I'm not sure you'll believe me," he said. With every line of his being he tried to convey how serious he was about this. He didn't want Kunsel to think this was a story he was exaggerating for dramatic effect.

"Why don't you try me?" Kunsel suggested. His mouth quirked a smile, wry and just as serious. "We're SOLDIER, Zack. We've all seen some unbelievable things."

Heh. That was true. Maybe from agreement, maybe from relief, Zack found himself laughing, and he started walking again. Kunsel was right, of course. The whole reason SOLDIER existed was to deal with incredible things. In that light, maybe, just maybe...

"Would you believe it," he asked, "if I told you I wasn't the one who killed Sephiroth?" His eyes swept the area as he gathered his thoughts. He could see scorch marks on the ground now. They must be getting close. The workers hadn't been able to tell them what it was that had attacked, only that there had been explosions that had knocked down scaffolding around the site and nearly cost a man his life. Zack frowned at the burn pattern. Not just a single source explosion, but a line leading to it across the ground. Too erratic to be from a fuse.

Kunsel saw it, too. He slipped his broadsword into its harness on his back, then pulled his glove off and knelt next to the blackened ground. His fingers brushed the edges of the burn, then he lifted them to smell the ash. "Not a bomb," he declared, confirming Zack's thoughts. "Smells like compost. We're probably looking for something plant-based. The ground's gone cold, though, so who knows if it's still near." He rose, pulling his glove back on. The simple act seemed to take him longer than it should, and he didn't start walking immediately. It took Zack a moment to realize the expression on his face was the one he wore when his thoughts were racing. Racing, turning over theories, mentally reviewing every bit of information. "You didn't kill Sephiroth?"

Despite everything, Zack couldn't resist cracking a grin. Really, how often did he get to stump his friend like this? "Nope," he said. "And you'll never guess what happened either."

He could practically see the gears turning in Kunsel's head. "Something killed him," he stated out loud. "SOLDIERs like the General don't just drop dead. You said he went nuts. That explains the company coverup. ShinRa?" He frowned, then immediately shook his head. "No, there weren't any other SOLDIERs sent to the area, and definitely no mass movement of ShinRa troops at the time. Whatever killed him was already there." As he spoke, he circled the burn slowly, eyes on the ground.

Still searching for clues to their mission while turning the matter of Sephiroth over in his mind. It was amazing to watch Kunsel work. Zack followed suit, keeping an eye out for tracks in the dirt. His movements turned into slow, ghosting steps to avoid even the chance of scuffing whatever trail might be left behind.

"You were at a reactor," Kunsel continued, still working the problem out. "The mission was to investigate abnormal reactor output."

Zack blinked in surprise. "How do you know these things?" As far as he knew, ShinRa didn't make a habit of sharing the specifics on mission parameters. Probably made it easier to cover things up if it went bad, a cynical part of his mind suggested.

Kunsel flashed him a grin at the familiar complaint. "That? That was easy. The techs at the reactor didn't bother to classify the mission request when they sent it in to ShinRa. I keep tabs on all the requests that come in. You never know when you'll get assigned."

As simple as that. So easy, so obvious, and yet something no one bothered with outside of maybe the Turks and the Director of SOLDIER. It was scary how effective Kunsel was with just the things that people overlooked.

Scarier to think that that was just the easy stuff. Zack wasn't sure he wanted to know what other methods Kunsel might have. "Remind me again why you're not a Turk?"

Kunsel just laughed. "I tell people it's because I look bad in a suit."

"What, you think the SOLDIER uniform looks any better on you?" Zack quipped.

"I dunno," Kunsel shot back, eyes dancing deviously. "But it definitely looks better on you with a helmet hiding your face!"

"Wha- Hey! My face doesn't look that bad!"

"Says you." Kunsel cheerfully ignored his mock offense. "You're not the one who has to look at it all day."

"Oh, you are so asking for it," Zack griped. "When we're done with this mission, I swear..." Only there wasn't anything he could swear. This wasn't a normal mission. They wouldn't be returning together after this. He'd forgotten that for a moment, caught up in the lighthearted exchange. He'd had far too few of those recently. It had been so easy... Zack trailed off, the humor fading away. "Kunsel, why...?" He groped for words to finish the question.

He didn't need to. Kunsel's own expression sobered as he met Zack's eyes. "Why am I here?" he filled in the blank. "Why am I talking to you? Why am I listening seriously to someone ShinRa wants dead? Someone who's working with terrorists?" He considered his own questions, then finally shrugged. "Because I believe in you," he said simply. "ShinRa's explanations never added up. Just because I work for them doesn't mean I trust everything they say. And AVALANCHE... I figure you've got your reasons. I want to hear what they are."

Because I believe in you.

Zack swallowed, a hard lump suddenly stuck in his throat. Kunsel was his friend. He'd known that, had had it cemented by the e-mails the other man had sent, but that level of trust, that level of faith- After all the tragedy, all the betrayal, everything that had happened since things went to hell, he'd never thought, never expected that something like that could remain. Not with anyone who ShinRa still claimed. "Kunsel..."

Kunsel's steps slowed, though he never stopped, still searching for clues on the ground. His eyes, though, were sober and solemn.

"Zack, talk to me."

Talk... Right. That was what they were here to do. Well, and hunt a monster, but they could do both, were doing both. For all that Kunsel met his eyes on occasion, they were still mostly focused on the ground and the walls of the empty buildings. Zack's own attention was split between this and keeping an eye out for scorch marks and movement. They'd be poor SOLDIERs if they couldn't manage two things at once. And this... Someone needed to know. Zack took a breath, trying to collect his thoughts.

"Five years ago..." he began.

-Five years ago, you were constructed by Hojo.- Sephiroth's voice taunted him in his head.

Wait, what?

Zack frowned, turning the memory over in his head, but no matter what angle he looked at it from, it didn't make any sense. Sephiroth had never said anything like that, and definitely not to him. So where had that come from?

"Five years ago?" Kunsel prompted him after he'd been silent a moment too long.

Zack shook the thought off. Whatever it was, he could deal with it later. Right now he had a story to tell.

"Five years ago, we took that mission to Nibelheim." He let his eyes drift, still half-seeing the construction site, but seeing a sleepy village, too. "I don't even know why they thought it needed two Firsts, unless they were worried we'd run into a nest of dragons, but it started off routinely enough. We slept at the inn, met our guide the next day, then went up to the reactor. What we found..." Rows of pods the size to fit a human, glass windows filled with the glow of mako. The memory turned his stomach even now just thinking about what had been inside. "Sephiroth said Professor Hojo had been running experiments there. What we found were monsters, pumped full of more mako than even SOLDIERs."

Kunsel made a startled noise at that revelation, his eyes widening with alarm at the thought. Zack knew what had to be running through his head. SOLDIERs went on monster extermination missions all the time. The worst, most dangerous ones were the missions where the monsters had a mako mutation. The idea of someone making more monsters like that, with even more mako behind them, was enough to send chills down any SOLDIER's back. "They attacked you guys? Is that how Sephiroth-?"

"No." Zack shook his head. "I mean, yeah, we were attacked, but that's not how Sephiroth died. Sephiroth..." He trailed off. The truth... Did he even know the truth? He was there. He knew more than anyone else still alive, but even he couldn't say what had been the final straw. Dammit, I shouldn't have let Sephiroth stay holed up so long. If I'd gone in there, talked to him, made him talk to me, then maybe...

Only maybe.

He blew out a breath, venting anguish and frustration. "I don't know, man. Genesis showed up while we were there and said a bunch of stuff, called Sephiroth a monster, called us all monsters, then asked Sephiroth for help. Sephiroth wouldn't, or couldn't - I still don't know which. After that, he locked himself in the ShinRa mansion and didn't come out for a week." He bent down, examining a patch of weeds. The ground around them looked like it might have been scorched weeks ago, but the scraggly, singed plants were showing signs of new growth, even greener than the other plants around. That supported Kunsel's theory about the type of monster they were tracking. Compost-based combustion often helped nourish the ground where it was used. "When he did come out, he wasn't the same." He straightened, voice dropping in pitch. "That's when he burned down Nibelheim."

Kunsel peered at him from where he'd knelt next to another patch of weeds. "You're certain he was responsible?" His expression was cautious, not disbelieving, but wanting to be sure of his facts.

"There were witnesses," Zack confirmed grimly. "And he all but admitted it when I confronted him. He'd gone to the reactor to retrieve his...mother." He grimaced around the word. Kunsel's jaw dropped, but Zack quickly held up a hand. "Don't. Just... don't. I don't know if that's the truth. I only know what Sephiroth and Genesis said. The Jenova Project - Jenova, the same name as Sephiroth's mother - was one of the things we found in the reactor. From what I could gather, its- her cells are how ShinRa turns people into SOLDIERs."

Kunsel's eyebrows shot up. "Someone's cells create SOLDIER enhancements? What is she? Someone with a mako mutation?"

"Hell if I know." Zack toed a bit of ground, trying to decide if it was scorched. "I got the impression she was more like a fossil, something they dug up after two thousand years. Didn't really look like a fossil to me, but with mako involved, who knows?"

"But if she's Sephiroth's mother-"

"I know, it doesn't make sense. That's why I'm not sure I believe it." He was tempted, strongly tempted, to pull his helmet off just so he could run his hand through his hair. "Whatever the truth is, that's what he believed, and he was way past reasoning at that point. I mean it when I say he lost it. He was talking to Jenova like she could talk back, and just the way he was talking, you could hear it. That wasn't Sephiroth anymore. Then he started talking about ruling the world, and- I had to stop him. We fought. I lost." His body ached at the memory. He'd long since healed from slamming into those stairs, but he doubted he'd forget the pain of that moment for years. He rubbed his chest, chasing away the phantom feel of a blade- No, not a blade. Not him. That was Cloud.

Ugh, I think that door hit me harder than I thought.

"But you're still alive," Kunsel pointed out. "So..." There it was again. That look of turning things over in his head.

Still trying to figure it out.

Zack smiled wryly, dropping his hand from his chest. "So it means that I had help. I told you before. Cloud fought him as well."

"But he was just a-" Kunsel cut himself off with a sharp intake of breath. His wide, startled eyes snapped to Zack. "That's what you're saying. You said I wouldn't guess. But- a trooper?" Shock was painted across his face.

"He could have made into SOLDIER if he'd had a chance," Zack said firmly. "I'm not saying he wasn't lucky. Sephiroth was insane. He wasn't at the top of his game, and I probably wore him down. But that doesn't change the fact that Cloud finished it."

"Even a tired Sephiroth could wipe the floor with most SOLDIERs," Kunsel said sharply. "He was the General. If there was a rank beyond First Class, he'd be it."

Zack turned a level look on his friend. "No matter how good you are, one mistake can still get you killed." He'd lost count of the number of times Angeal had tried to drill that into his head. "I didn't see how it all happened. Like I said, Sephiroth already took me down. But Cloud came out and Sephiroth didn't. I think that speaks for itself well enough."

Kunsel shook his head, no longer even pretending interest in their abandoned surroundings. Silence ruled for a moment as he struggled with whatever he was thinking - trust, disbelief, a protest that a hero could fall so fully, Zack could only guess. Below the plate, there wasn't even any wind to disturb them, no birds chirping, no grass rustling. Just dead buildings and shadows and the smell of pollution in the air, laced with the faintest hint of plant decay.

"What happened then?" the other man finally asked.

Zack's gut twisted, even knowing the question was coming. His mind flashed back to a tube filled with mako, to needles and a table, and Hojo-

No. Kunsel didn't need to know those details. He needed to know, but not... not everything. Zack tried to shrug it off like it wasn't important, turning his attention back to the search for clues so he wouldn't have to see the look on his friend's face. He didn't want to see any pity. "Hojo found us. I think you can guess what happened after that. 'Escaped specimens'," he added wryly. "I know you read those alerts."

Kunsel made a strangled noise.

Zack pretended he didn't hear him. "After we busted out, things got a little hairy," he said in a deliberate change of topic. "ShinRa called in the Turks, and you know those guys aren't easy to dodge. We got luckier there than I deserve." More than lucky, but he wasn't going to betray Cissnei's help. She'd put her life on the line by turning a blind eye on him. Telling anyone, even Kunsel, risked putting her in danger. He'd be a poor friend, repaying her like that. "Unfortunately, the army caught up with us just outside of Midgar. That's when Cloud..." He drew a breath, let it out.

Cloud.

It hurt. Just thinking about it hurt. He looked up at the underside of the Plate, wishing he could see the sky. Can you see me, Cloud? Wherever you are?

He wasn't surprised when there wasn't an answer.

He forced himself to speak past the ache in his throat. "Cloud had mako poisoning. A really bad case. I practically had to drag him all the way from Nibelheim. I left him behind when the army showed up. I didn't know-"

-the price of freedom-

"-he'd started to recover..."

-My honor, my dreams...-

Zack blinked, and suddenly he could see the sky, full of clouds, full of rain that soaked everything. He could feel every drop that hit his face, could feel every bullet that riddled his chest. It was so hard to breathe. Every breath hurt.

Cloud leaned over him, blood smeared on his cheek, looking so utterly lost. -I'm...?-

No. No.

He shook his head, then shook it roughly again, pressing the heal of his hand to his forehead hard enough to feel the pressure even through the helmet he was wearing. No! That's not what happened! What's wrong with me?

"Zack? Zack!" Kunsel's hand clamped on his shoulder, his voice rising in alarm. When had he gotten that close? "Zack, talk to me! What's wrong? Where are you hurt?"

Zack gasped, trying to form words, but he couldn't. He was drowning, lungs filling up with too much blood. He grabbed desperately at Kunsel with fingers that were going cold. -I'm in shock. I'm dying.-

No, no I'm not!


"Zack!"

The world wavered, caught between metal and rain.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped, solidifying, until Kunsel's terrified face was the only one leaning over him.

-End Chapter Two-

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